Tuesday, June 02, 2009

What a strange thing to hate...

This is an interesting little post (entitled Deprogramming the M.F.A.) about Creative Writing M.F.A. programs from The New Criterion. Fashioned as a review of sorts of UCLA professor Mark McGurl’s new book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, the author makes some rather scathing remarks about M.F.A. programs, accusing them of “flailing anemic narcissism” and likening them to Ponzi schemes. The article cites that there were 52 Creative Writing M.F.A. programs in 1970, and 300 in 2004. Of course, the implication is that this number is too high, based on the claim that such programs contribute little to the state of American letters. But back to the numbers—this is a big jump, even allowing for the increase in raw numbers of college students from 1970 to 2004 (52 programs in 1970 would equal about 100 in 2004, based on the ratio of the number of college students to Creative Writing M.F.A. programs). These do not necessarily represent “new” programs, but rather a specialization. Before the proliferation of Creative Writing M.F.A. programs, students generally pursued some kind of Master of Arts degree in English and geared their work and courses to creative writing (to whatever extent they could within the degree program). Of course, this also falls into the general trend of specialization in higher education over the last thirty years, so I’m not sure that the criticism holds a lot of water.

It seems that the article’s real grinding axe has to do with the idea of the workshop, often a large, integrated component of a CW M.F.A. program (and in other artistic disciplines as well, I might add). Workshopping is a collaborative process; it involves giving up a sense of one’s certain authority and listening to other voices. It very much challenges the Western, masculine concept of the artist as individual, toiling in solitude. I suspect that the author of the article is somewhat uncomfortable with the paradigm shift that accompanies a more collaborative model for artistic creation.

As for the “flailing anemic narcissism” and the M.F.A.’s lack of contribution to American letters, I submit the following list of Pulitzer Prize winners from the last 20 years who completed Creative Writing M.F.A. programs:

UC Irvine: Michael Chabon (2001), Richard Ford (1996), Yusef Komunyakaa (1994)
Cornell: Junot Diaz (2008)
U Mass: Natasha Trethewey (2007)
Stanford: Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
Arizona: Richard Russo (2001)
Boston University: Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
Iowa: Michael Cunningham (1999), Robert Butler (1993), Jane Smiley (1992)
City College of New York: Oscar Hijuelos (1990)

(Note: The full article is no longer available for free, unfortunately; it seems past a week or so, articles become available only to subscribers)